Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What Comes After Neoconservatism?

Keywords: Doug Saunders; neoconservatives; Seymour Martin Lipset; democracy; tyrants; Ismael Zayer; Kurds; Shia; Ahmed Al-Chalabi; nonviolence; John Bacher; Robert Helvey; Gene Sharp; Michael Ignatieff; Laith Kubba; Iraq; regime change.

My Saturdays begin with excitement: Oh, goody — this is the morning when ’s column will appear in the Globe and Mail. He’s that good.

Last Saturday’s column, “Neocons Sing Their Own Swan Song,” was particularly meaningful to me, since I was about to write an obituary about my mentor, , who is widely reviled as a neoconservative. I have defended Lipset against that charge, but since he apparently never did so himself, I guess it is not up to me to object to that label. The approach that Saunders took is even better. While acknowledging the rout of that movement, which was well-earned, he pauses to point out its good side.

I don’t think neo-conservatives had enough in common to constitute a single, identifiable category. Moreover, their “good sides” were not all equally good; some were deplorable from every angle. Saunders defines them as “an international policy based on morality, on the spread of democracy and open economies, on the removal of tyrants — all coupled with a radically libertarian, small-government domestic policy.”

He asks whether we should miss them. Good question. My answer: I like international policies based on morality (which I equate to human rights). I like democracy and (with qualifications) open economies. I favor the removal of . I don’t much like libertarian, small-government policies. But that does not make me a neocon — not by a long shot — because Saunders omits the main criterion: the neocons’ readiness to use violence in promoting democracy and ousting tyrants. One can — and I do — like both and . The thing is, neither the neoconservatives nor Saunders himself takes nonviolence seriously as a valid, practicable method of “regime change” against tyrants such as Saddam Hussein.

Nor does , whose recent narrow defeat for the leadership of the Liberal Party may reflect the declining credibility of neoconservatism. Yes, it is fair to call Ignatieff a neocon; as Saunders notes, he had favored the regime change of Iraq by military means. I once challenged Ignatieff from the floor after a lecture he gave at the University of Toronto by pointing out that, despite being one of the authors of the “” doctrine, which has now become recognized as international law, his proposals about Iraq had not met one of its main requirements.

“R2P,” as it is called, requires that military intervention be taken only as the last resort, after all other possibilities have been considered. Yet in his articles in The New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff had never even mentioned the possibility of bringing down a dictator through nonviolent means. There were, I said, expatriate Iraqis who wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein through nonviolent resistance, yet Ignatieff had never even mentioned them, let alone supported them. Nor, of course, had the Bush administration.

He looked shocked. “That would be the most irresponsible thing I can imagine,” he replied.

Yeah, sure. Somebody might get hurt that way.

But Peace Magazine, which I edit, was in touch before the invasion with Iraqi expatriates who wanted to bring down the dictatorship by assuming all the risks themselves and asking only moral and financial support from abroad. And that's the answer to militarism; people who want democracy must be in charge of getting it for themselves — nonviolently.

The best approach I know for exposing the true flaw in neoconservatism is to reprint here two articles that Peace published in 2003. One was by me, the other by . Whereas the neocons are now having to acknowledge their mistakes, there is nothing in either of these articles that Bacher or I wish we could retract. Read on.

Ushering Democracy into Iraq Nonviolently
By Metta Spencer

From Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2003, p.8.

“In the United States, apart from a few significant street demonstrations, George W. Bush enjoys enormous support for his war plans. Journalists and pollsters say that this reflects, not some strangely innate blood lust on the part of the population, but two prominent concerns - first, the belief that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (as if the US itself did not) and, second, the fact that Saddam Hussein is, in fact, a tyrant who represses his own people. The organizers of protests do not, on the whole, propose any alternative, nonviolent way of bringing democracy to Iraq. What is there to demonstrate for?

“Point well taken. The UN weapons inspectors will reduce the first concern - about Iraq's arsenal - but the second issue remains unresolved. However much one objects to the American plan, it is also unconscionable to acquiesce to a dictator who destroys the lives of his own people. However, three groups of peace activists do object to the war and the existing sanctions while disclaiming responsibility for liberating Iraq from tyranny.

“The first group includes those who do not consider democracy important to peace (many of them had also acquiesced to the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of socialism). The second group consists of people who believe that democracy cannot take root in Iraq now, and that whoever replaces Saddam Hussein will be just as bad, if not worse. They cannot, in conscience, support any worthy but hopeless cause. The third group consists of people who believe that the Iraqi people can rid themselves of their dictator nonviolently, but that such a resistance movement would only be compromised by accepting political or financial support from foreign sources - especially the United States.

“This article is addressed primarily to members of the third category. While I understand their qualms about accepting money from such sources as the United States government (which in fact has not offered any), I believe that it is urgently necessary to support the nonviolent activities of an Iraqi opposition movement....

“Here I want, first, to appraise the possibility of nonviolently ousting Saddam Hussein; second, to identify the main opposition groups; and third, to consider the prospects for democracy in a post-dictatorship era.

“The great majority of Iraqis are not enthusiastic supporters of their leader, despite his claims to that effect. In a referendum held October 15, supposedly 100 percent of the voters supported the extension of Saddam Hussein's presidency for another seven years. Of course, there was no alternative candidate on the ballot. Separate boxes were provided for "Yes" and "No" votes, and anyone present could see where the ballots were placed. It would be extremely dangerous to vote against the president. On previous occasions, "No" voters have been known to be arrested and dragged away, never to be seen again. The most that might have been achieved by way of opposition would have been increased voter absenteeism, which would have been less dangerous than to vote "No." Iraqi citizens don't have easy ways of showing their displeasure.

“On the other hand, according to the Norwegian peace activist Jan Oberg, who recently visited , the average Iraqi citizen is better informed about current affairs in the West than Europeans and Americans are about Iraq. Any Iraqi caught with a satellite dish is fined the equivalent of $500, while a person informing against him gets $250. Nevertheless, some satellite reception does take place, and ordinary TV sets show pirated Hollywood movies, documentaries about Israel, summaries of Western newspapers, belly dance shows, live football matches, and speeches by the president. The Internet and e-mail are spreading, though sanctions have limited their proliferation to the number of computers that can be smuggled into Iraq. Baghdad newspapers offer stories about international affairs and about Western artists and writers that are straight translations of BBC material.


“The well-being of Iraq's citizenry will require that two difficult challenges be met. First, the people must rid themselves of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime, and second, a new democratic government must be instituted in a country that is rife with religious, ethnic, clan, and ideological factionalism, and where freedom has never been a way of life. Preparations should be undertaken immediately to implement both of these changes, since if reasonable plans are not undertaken promptly, the opportunities will soon be lost. Indeed, it already is terribly late to start such campaigns.

“I will not even discuss whether the Iraqi people deserve to control the circumstances of their own lives, but will assume that every reader can grasp that significant truth. The question is not whether it is desirable to get rid of a dictator, but whether it is feasible, and whether the successor government will constitute any improvement. That is why the challenge of nonviolently toppling Saddam should not be considered in isolation from the realistic opportunities for the subsequent establishment of democracy. A reasonable argument can be made for favorable outcomes on both issues, though it would be truly wrong to underestimate the extent of the difficulty. There will be serious costs, but all other alternatives may cost even more.

“There is a growing independent movement for democracy both inside Iraq and in the émigré community. For example, on October 22, two astonishing demonstrations occurred at the Baghdad Ministry of Information, where several protestors demanded information about their imprisoned relatives. After they were broken up by police, the Information Minister said he would try to account for the whereabouts of their lost relatives. "Something like this has never happened before," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "It's a very, very important and unusual event."

“One émigré leader is an exiled journalist, Ismail Zayer (see photo), who lives in the Netherlands. He coordinates a nonviolent democratic opposition group, "No to Saddam," which advocates a "third choice" - neither war nor keeping Saddam in power. Zayer supports human rights everywhere and claims that "nonviolence is a new trend in Arabic politics. We are aware of Palestinian nonviolence and are trying to team up with them." Zayer believes that the power of Iraq's leadership is crumbling. He is working with supportive organizations in the United States - especially the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict in Washington, D.C. - a small, private nongovernmental organization headed by .

“In Virginia last January DuVall's organization held a session on strategic nonviolent conflict. Iraqi Kurds met with organizers of nonviolent struggles from South America, the US Civil Rights Movement, Chile, Poland, Mongolia, and Serbia.

“DuVall and his colleague - both scholar-activists who have studied numerous historical cases of nonviolent resistance - are training Iraqi exiles who are willing to work for a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Ackerman is chair of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. With the recent example of the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in mind, they maintain that a similar kind of civilian insurrection is a realistic way for Iraqi people to topple Saddam.

“They represent a minority view. Most of the recognized Iraqi opposition groups expect that the United States will lead a coalition to unseat the dictator, and believe that nothing short of armed force from abroad will accomplish such a change. The power of nonviolent resistance has never been comprehended widely and even when it has proved successful, people often tend to discount it as a fluke or attribute it to other factors. Ackerman and DuVall, strongly influenced by the eminent peace researcher , maintain that the success or failure of nonviolence depends on choices made among a vast number of techniques. The goal is not to make a symbolic point, but to triumph by strategically using methods that work precisely against the circumstances that are holding tyranny in place. Nonviolent strategies require the same kind of intelligence as the planning of military engagements. Fortunately, their victims ordinarily are far fewer.

“Ackerman and DuVall acknowledge that Saddam's rule may be as brutal as that of any dictator since Stalin. On the other hand, he does not enjoy the support that Stalin had - an entrenched party system, backed by ideological zealots. Instead, his hold on power depends more on personal loyalties, material rewards, and mortal penalties. If a campaign against him began with civilian-based incidents of disruption that were dispersed around the country, offering no convenient targets, then any crack-down would depend on the outermost, least reliable members of Saddam's repressive apparatus. If the resisters made it clear to police and soldiers that they were not viewed as the enemy, then the realization that Saddam was being opposed openly would lessen the danger of carrying out further acts of resistance. As opposition became more visible, there would be new places for defectors to meet.

‘Saddam recognizes that he can't fight a battle to repress a population on all fronts,’ says Ackerman. ‘He has to terrorize to get compliance. The more people he employs to terrorize the population, statistically speaking, the more unreliable his security force. There are elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard he is afraid to have in Baghdad.’

“Ackerman and DuVall point out that when a nonviolent movement begins, most people think success is impossible, because they can just see the costs of resisting, rather than the costs that the resisters can impose on those in power. Dictatorial regimes are only as tolerant as required to maintain the façade of internal or external legitimacy. Not only gentle, polite regimes have been overthrown, but also some that brutalized their opponents.

“‘Strategic nonviolent action is not about being nice to your oppressor, much less having to rely on his niceness,’ say Ackerman and DuVall. ‘It's about dissolving the foundations of his power and forcing him out. It is possible in Iraq.”

“But what then? There would be no point in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, only to see him succeeded by another dictator who would rule the same way. Therefore, whenever preparations are made to launch a nonviolent resistance movement, plans must be laid for establishing a democratic regime that will hold together over the long term.


“The prospects of attaining cooperation among the disparate Iraqi political groups seem bleak. Opposition political groups cannot openly function within any part of Iraq that is controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Indeed, the secret police includes a significant fraction of the population (as in Romania under Ceaucescu and East Germany during the Communist regime), making private discussions of political matters dangerous. Even remote Iraqi villages that lack electricity are well supplied with political informants.

“Not only does the regime repress political criticism, but the opposition groups themselves are so divided that pluralistic politics would be difficult, even if circumstances permitted openness.


“The , who constitute 19 percent of the Iraqi population, live in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) of northern Iraq. That region was established in the 1970s but relations were always tense and, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Kurdish guerrillas attacked the Iraqi regime, with help from Iran. In retaliation, Saddam Hussein waged war against the strongholds of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), even using chemical weapons in thousands of villages. After the 1991 Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush incited rebellion among the Kurds, without providing assistance for their troops against Saddam's forces. The Kurdish insurrection was crushed and some 1.5 million Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey. Baghdad forces regained control of the autonomous region, but then Western troops forced them out of the security zone. Today, most Kurds mistrust the United States, expecting that Washington might grant Turkey even greater influence in northern Iraq in exchange for the right to use Turkish land as bases for military action against Iraq. For its part, the Turkish government is anxious not to encourage Kurds, since many issues with their own separatist Kurds remain unresolved.

“The two main Kurdish parties in KAR - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - have sometimes fought against each other. For example, in 1996 the KDP sought aid from the Iraqi troops to gain control of PUK land. However, the two parties now are sharing power in a relatively civil way. Together they have a total of about 40,000 troops, which the Americans view as potentially comparable to the oppositional function of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. However, the Kurds may be unwilling to undertake any such risks, especially now that they enjoy significant levels of freedom and are prospering from access to the cheap fuel and profits of oil smuggling operations that the Iraq regime encourages.

“Besides, despite their strength in numbers, the Kurdish parties have apparently been losing influence within the opposition groups and are not thought capable of leading a movement to overthrow the regime. To do so, they would have to compromise with other ethnic groups - notably the Arabs, Turkmens, and Assyrians, all of which have expatriate communities and political groups.


“The make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million people. (The ruling group in Baghdad has long been dominated by Sunni Muslims - a group that constitutes only 16 percent of Iraq's population.) Mostly based in the south, the Shia are unlikely to cooperate with a US-led invasion, since they reportedly doubt that it is the way to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In 1991 they did participate in an uprising against the Iraqi president, along with other groups, but this effort was crushed, with the loss of tens of thousands of lives, mainly because the US did not offer military help, despite having incited the insurrection.

“The Shiite opposition is supported by Iran and continues to maintain a military organization of between 7,000 and 15,000 men. Their organization is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is based in Tehran. There are also other Shia groups functioning within Iraq. Not surprisingly, at a meeting of opposition groups in London this fall, the Shiite delegates stated that they did not want a federation in Iraq, and that nothing would succeed in replacing Baghdad as the capital of the country.


“The entire exiled Iraqi opposition movement comprises mostly Kurds and Shiites, but it also includes ethnic and secular communities, such as Turkmens, Assyrians, and Communists. The largest effort to coordinate these various communities has taken place within an umbrella organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which was formed in 1992 and is now the best-known organization. It is based in London.

“Washington has attempted in the past to consult with opposition groups, to support and to increase unity among them. In 1998 the US Congress authorized expending nearly $100 million for anti-Saddam activities, but not for combat training. A large portion of the money was to be distributed to the INC, which produces satellite TV programs for Iraq. However, the organization's accounting procedures came under attack and most of the money was never administered.

“Indeed, some observers are apprehensive about the quality of leadership available within the entire spectrum of exiled Iraqis. The Sunday Herald in Glasgow even ran an article by Cambridge lecturer Glen Rangwala, titled, "Unveiled: The Thugs Bush Wants in Place of Saddam," that named the most probable successors of the Iraqi president. One is a former general, Nizar Al-Khazraji, who led the Iraqi army during the invasion of Kuwait and who is the most senior figure ever to have defected from Saddam's regime. He has been blamed for the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s - a charge that he calls a calculated smear. Another influential Iraqi is Ahmad Al-Chalabi, a former banker and Shia who fled to London in 1989 under charges of embezzlement. He took over the INC for a while and is still often referred to as the "future president of Iraq," despite the fact that about half the money the US gave to the INC during his leadership was not properly accounted for. He remains popular among some factions of American strategists.

“By this past summer, as the Bush administration was gearing up for war, many doubts were emerging about the merit of "changing the regime" unless it was clear what kind of democratic regime would replace the dictatorship. In May, a three-day conference was held in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, under the auspices of a British organization, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. There were 130 participants - academics, clergy, journalists, chieftains, and students from three universities and different ethnic, ideological, and religious backgrounds - who called for sanctions to be lifted, for the development of civil society, for democratic reforms, and for an integration of the whole region, modeled after the European Union.

“In July, the US State Department began holding "working group" meetings to bring the Iraqi factions together. These meetings included the INC (which continues to enjoy strong backing from Washington), plus the Kurdish parties; the London-based Iraqi National Accord (which comprises former members of the ruling Ba'ath Party); the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is the main Shiite Muslim organization.

“Not many of these groups see eye to eye. The question is, can a viable democratic regime be created from such material? The prospects are not promising. At our press time in mid-December they had just convened a long-delayed conference in London. Some 300 delegates attended, representing the whole political spectrum of parties, plus ethnic and religious groups. They promised to keep working toward a common program. The attitude in the United States remains mixed. Some strategists, skeptical about the capacity of expatriate political groups to work together, prefer the idea of fostering a coup by Iraqi military leaders. Yet others prefer turning post-Saddam Iraq over to the United Nations as a protectorate (perhaps along the same lines as Kosovo) to evade the (to them) distasteful task of "nation-building." The prospect of unseating the regime by nonviolent means and instituting a truly democratic regime is rarely considered.


is an Iraqi who works in Washington D. C. with the , a nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. The Endowment is governed by an independent, nonpartisan board of directors. Although some émigré Iraqis worry about Kubba's closeness to the US State Department (they demand that any opposition group remain financially and politically remote from American influences) others worry about the opposite problem - that, apart from the Kurds, no Iraqi democratic opposition groups receive financial help from the US government.

“Kubba believes democracy is possible in all Muslim countries, including Iraq. He maintains that there is nothing in Islamic texts and traditions to interfere with democratization, for the cultural obstacle is not religious, but only a deficit of modernity. Eventually there will be a regime change in Iraq, but none of the options suggested to date is workable, in his opinion, so he offers the following proposals of his own.

“The fragmented communities of Shi'ites, Kurds, and Sunnis must manage a transition that is difficult, Kubba says, but not impossible. The important thing is to create an inclusive interim power-sharing administration that will maintain order while allowing all the interest groups to express their ideas. The most urgent step will be to hold a constitutional assembly and plan for a free, fair referendum on ratification, while maintaining law and order.

“The last thing Iraq needs is another strongman, says Kubba. Instead, the interim administration should have three temporary councils. One would function as a lower house for deputies appointed or elected by political groups. Opposition organizations, whether in exile or in northern Iraq, could fill up to three-quarters of its 200 seats.

“The second council would be a sort of senate, with 100 seats mainly for tribal, religious, and ethnic dignitaries. It would give traditional leaders a role and ensure the inclusion of minorities such as Turkmens, Chaldeans, and Assyrian Christians. These two councils would nominate members of the constitutional assembly, but should stay out of administrative matters.

“A third council would handle national security and control weapons and armed men, preventing the outbreak of private warfare. It would include officers from the current Iraqi military and security establishment, plus representatives of the political opposition organizations named above. Kubba proposes allowing most of Saddam's ordinary civilian bureaucrats, as opposed to secret police, to keep their jobs.

“Overseeing the transition would be a three-member presidency with authority over the three temporary councils. There would be one senior figure from the north, the centre, and the south - all with untarnished records of integrity. The presidency would appoint cabinet ministers, consulting with the KDP and PUK regarding nominations concerning the north and with the SCIRI regarding the south.

“Kubba acknowledges that this plan will not please everyone, but says it would allow for a legitimate and legal transfer of power. It makes existing armed groups part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


“George W. Bush can prevent a war against Iraq merely by deciding not to launch it. He can also improve the quality of life for ordinary Iraqi citizens by agreeing to end the harsh sanctions that have killed so many people - especially innocent children. But neither of these decisions alone would bring democracy and human security to the Iraqi citizens. Basically, the people must claim those rights by their own efforts, ousting the dictator and establishing a better government in which old ethnic, ideological, and religious enmities are constrained within pluralistic tolerance.

“This can be done. It cannot be done overnight, and it cannot be done at all without moral and financial support. DuVall's Center for Nonviolence hopes eventually to have a $100 million private endowment to challenge dictators, but the money does not exist for that purpose yet. Nongovernmental organizations and, especially, governments themselves have little faith in the potential of nonviolent resistance. Too often, they are afraid of appearing naïve by supporting a cause that has little chance of success. No one can be sanguine that Iraq's dictatorship will collapse easily or without imposing pain on the domestic opposition. However, the cost of supporting an autonomous nonviolent movement calling for democracy is a pittance in comparison to the probable alternative - war - whereas the payoff is enormous in terms of lives potentially saved, and as a way of recovering the respect and trust of Muslims throughout the world.

“It's a promising investment. So far, however, no government has offered recognition or support comparable to that devoted to ousting Milosevic. Private sources of assistance are even less available, but unless democratic peace activists support their true allies among Iraqis, public opinion will waver and fail to block Bush's war plans.

“In mid-December, however, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a major American policy shift that, if fulfilled, will certainly bear upon these issues. According to Powell, the US will henceforth not play favorites, aligning with some Middle Eastern autocrats while demanding that others introduce reforms. He declared that the rulers of oil-rich Persian Gulf countries have failed to bring either democracy or prosperity to the Arab world. ‘I no longer think that is affordable and sustainable. America wants to align itself with the people of the Middle East.’ It will promote democratic change and social reforms throughout the region.

“If this really is the US policy it may have been designed to mollify Arab indignation over the US double standard (attacking Iraq while retaining other Islamic dictators as allies). Nevertheless, a universalistic policy of reform will be welcomed by the despairing Arab populations. It will also create new opportunities and challenges for peace activists. We should promote nonviolent ways of attaining these goals ourselves.”

The second article, by John Bacher, appeared in Peace Magazine shortly after mine.

Robert Helvey's Expert Political Defiance
By John Bacher

From Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, p.10.

“You know the names of plenty of military leaders (Eisenhower and Mountbatten, for example) who vanquished dictators - but I'll bet you never heard of Robert Helvey. You should. He's a rugged, retired US colonel whose adventures could make a terrific Hollywood epic. Moreover, he offers an answer to the main problem that we are all confronting - how to help the Iraqi people get rid of a dictator without violence.

“Helvey is experienced and credible. Most recently he has given preliminary training to 50 leaders of a democratic Iraqi opposition organization called "No to Saddam," which is committed to dissolving the dictatorship through such means of resistance as massive strikes. And for several years before, he was training democratic opposition movements in Burma and in Serbia. His work was crucial in OTPOR's overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. I will describe his work in all three countries: Burma, Serbia, and Iraq.


“From 1983 until 1985 Helvey was a US military attaché at the American Embassy in Rangoon, where he was dismayed by the futility of armed resistance to the brutal dictatorship of Burma. An armed struggle had continued without success for over two decades. The democratic protesters were outgunned by Burma's military rulers, whose 400,000 troops were well-supplied by Communist China, and who had profits from the narcotics trade and foreign corporations involved in logging, mining, and petroleum development.

“Helvey could see no way of resisting the junta, and that fact haunted him throughout his last year of military service, which he spent as a fellow at Harvard's Center for International Affairs. One day he saw a poster advertising a talk on nonviolent sanctions, to be given a few hours later by the leading theorist of nonviolent resistance, Gene Sharp. Greatly impressed by Sharp's analysis of how to acquire political power without war, Helvey immediately recognized the value of such methods for Burma's democrats, who were being slaughtered.

“From conversations with Sharp and like-minded colleagues at the Albert Einstein Institution, Helvey learned a systematic strategy of resistance. For example, he learned to avoid exposed situations that could lead to heavy casualties such as the protest in 1988 when 3,000 unarmed students were massacred in Rangoon. He came to see that even greater pressure could be applied to the regime with less risky tactics, such as having people simply stay at home during a general strike.

“After retiring from the army in 1991, Helvey gave a speech in Washington, using Sharp's insights and adding his own. A member of the audience later offered to pay his way to Burma to spread his message. With this funding, from 1992 to 1998, he made 15 trips to the Thai-Burmese border to meet with more than 500 members of the National Council Union of Burma, a pro-democracy umbrella group. On eight occasions, Helvey taught a six-week course, seeking to build confidence, identify the dictatorship's major weaknesses, and form pressure groups. This is hard to do in Burma, where unauthorized meetings of more than five people are banned. He stressed that nonviolent struggle, "like military struggle, is both an art and a science. To be effective, it must be studied and carried out with skill and discipline." His students prepared strategic plans for facing certain dangerous situations. Helvey bought air time on Radio Norway's shortwave broadcasts, and cassettes of his resistance message were distributed underground in Burma.

“Many of those attending Helvey's course had been officers in armed resistance groups for many years and were skeptical about nonviolence. For example, Auun Nang Oo, who is now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Nonviolence, was astonished that a career soldier could hold such views. Another unbeliever was General Bo Mya, the leader of the Karens, the biggest national minority. At first he would just grumble and grunt that he "wasn't interested in doing the work of cowards." To change such attitudes, Helvey coined the more militant-sounding phrase, "political defiance," which won Bo over and caused him to ask Helvey to train more Karen leaders.

“Gene Sharp joined Helvey at the request of the American Friends of Democracy in Burma. Both men met students who had faced ghastly experiences, including imprisonment, solitary confinement, torture, dangers to family, and executions of relatives and friends. Yet none of them seemed hardened and hateful, but all "seemed determined to bring an end to this massive oppression, hopefully by political defiance rather than a continuation of a long war."

“Helvey's training was to have a noticeable impact on the Burmese opposition. In 1997, the All-Burma Students Democratic Front ended its support for armed struggle and endorsed the strategies of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Su Kyi. She had been elected president of Burma in 1990 in an election nullified by the country's military rulers. Now new tactics were employed, such as lightning-quick street protests, sit-ins, and the distribution of leaflets before troops could arrive.

“Helvey stayed in touch with Burma's opposition even after his main work shifted to the training of youthful democrats in the former Yugoslavia. Until the spring of 2001, difficulties in Burma were compounding because Aung San Su Kyi was kept under house arrest. As he explained to me, "Politics in Burma have always been personalized and Aung San Su Kyi is the symbol of the entire pro-democracy movement. Without her, the movement has not demonstrated the ability to take on strategic struggle."

“Because her release was so important, it became a condition for the ending of many restrictions on foreign aid to Burma. Helvey explained that

‘Aung San Su Kyi's release was in response to international pressure, especially Japan's forgiving some of the country's extensive debt. The rulers showed they kept their part of the bargain by allowing her to move around the country to open the offices of her party, the National League for Democracy. In doing so, she spoke to large demonstrations, which showed her popularity to be stronger than ever. I think that these visits are a sign of what is to come in the future.’

“Helvey sees one hopeful sign in an incident of December, 2002 in the state of Arakan, 535 km west of Rangoon. A line of fire trucks had been sent to disperse a crowd of 20,000 people who had gathered to welcome Aung San Su Kyi. Faced with this threat, she suddenly leapt out of her car and jumped onto a fire truck. From here she berated the security forces, telling them that their real job is not to bully the people of Burma but to serve them. The people applauded and faced the fire trucks and police, who backed off.


“Helvey's success with Otpor, the youthful democratic opposition in Serbia, benefited from a temporary consistency and coherence in American foreign policy during the Clinton presidency, which actually pursued the strategies advocated by Gene Sharp. That policy was clearly and openly articulated in a memorandum to the US Congress, written by Daniel Server, director of the Balkan Initiative of the US Institute for Peace. This organization, founded in 1984 and funded by the US Congress, promotes a variety of perspectives favoring peace and human rights. It focuses on civil society, humanitarian assistance, and intercultural dialogue.

“Server made his request for funding in an open document available freely on the Internet. Eventually Congress approved around $45 million. In order to make its objectives appear sinister, Milosevic's secret police slightly falsified his policy document, replacing the US Institute for Peace letterhead with that of the CIA and marking it as TOP SECRET. Helvey recalls that such ploys were based on the correct understanding that "the easiest way to destroy a movement is for the CIA to taint it."

“Many elements in a nonviolent Yugoslav democratization strategy, such as radio broadcasting and aid to democratic groups, were already in place before Server formed the clear, coherent new policy. One benefit of this clarity was to counter the conspiracy theory that accused the US of wanting to keep Milosevic in power. Server employed every element of Sharp's nonviolent strategy for destroying a dictatorship, with the full support of President Bill Clinton's administration. Sanctions were applied in a more targeted fashion. For example, they were not applied to municipalities that voted to support opposition politicians. The National Democratic Institute commissioned polls for Serbian political parties that found that 70 percent of the country viewed Milosevic unfavorably. A series of radio transmitters, called the "Ring Around Serbia," were constructed in neighboring countries to beam in the BBC, the Agence France-Presse, and Voice of America.

“The US Treasury Department was able to trace the movement of Milosevic's funds. Billions of dollars were being laundered through two major Cyprus banks. Cyprus agreed to freeze these assets.

“With the US policy toward Yugoslavia then being written on the basis of Sharp's nonviolent strategies, it was logical that one of his leading colleagues, Robert Helvey, would be assigned the role of building the skills of the nonviolent opposition. The National Republican Institute asked Helvey to undertake the training of Otpor. He began this project in the Budapest Hilton Hotel, with an original core group of only 12 people. Helvey was not paid for his efforts, though his expenses were covered. He began his course by discussing the basics of strategic nonviolent struggle. Srdja Popovic, one of the students, recalls having memorized many of his lectures - especially the opening words, ‘Removing the authority of the ruler is the most important element in nonviolent struggle.’

“Helvey asked Otpor's leaders to analyze the "pillars of support" that sustained the regime, such as control of the media and the country's security forces. The training sessions strategized on how to develop support from a wide spectrum of Serbian citizens, including people within government itself.

“In his lectures, Helvey called violent incidents ‘contaminants to nonviolent struggle," using the metaphor of a car's gas tank contaminated by moisture so that eventually the engine may not run at all. Violence causes "a lot of people who joined your movement because it was nonviolent … to start backing away.’

“Another objective of the training was to overcome fear. Though his students were courageous, Helvey's challenge was to persuade more ordinary Serbs to join in. To handle fear, marchers would touch each other after frightening events, such as the clicking of bayonets, or the beating of batons. Chanting and making noise, he explained, can drown out threatening sounds. Similar impacts are gained from holding banners, which divert attention from threatening soldiers.

“Giving demonstrators minute tasks is another way to overcome fear. Some were employed in keeping protest lines straight. Sign holders were instructed to keep their signs at particular angles. Others were assigned to give warnings of police attacks. Another task for marchers was to carry water.

“Helvey also prepared his students for the real physical suffering many would experience from Yugoslav security forces. It was explained that protesters should prepare first aid and be ready for the first sight of blood after police attacks. Some lessons came from Martin Luther King's training in churches during the civil rights movement, which taught activists to fall down and cover their heads when being beaten.

“Following Helvey's training, Otpor launched a massive recruiting campaign. The regime retaliated, beating and arresting scores of activists within a few weeks. Many recalled Helvey's advice not to respond violently to these attacks. The sight of police abusing young nonviolent demonstrators helped to swell Otpor's ranks into a movement of 70,000 activists. Prominent athletes, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and even judges joined in. To move the elderly away from their support of Milosevic, Otpor took up pensioners' causes. They sent flowers to the military on Army Day. Such tactics recruited sympathizers in numbers that would not be apparent until the final days of the regime, when soldiers and police stood by while massive crowds stormed the Serbian parliament.


“Almost a year after the successful nonviolent Serbian Revolution of 2000, a seminar began planning to oust the Iraqi dictatorship through similar means. It was offered by the Center for Nonviolent Conflict, Freedom House, and the US Institute for Peace, and was followed by a session in Washington in May sponsored by the Iraqi Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Here Helvey's military experience helped persuade skeptical Iraqi exiles that nonviolence is a viable approach.

“The Gulf War and the subsequent containment efforts against Iraq, says Helvey, ‘only dealt with a symptom of the problems posed by Saddam Hussein. It did not solve the problems of regional security, instability, genocide, and tyranny. Since the war ended, tens of thousands of Iraqi citizens have been killed. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent keeping Saddam's aggressive desires in check, and the regime remains unstable.’


“Helvey's strongest supporter at the May strategy session was (see photo), whose campaign was called "No to Saddam." Zayer advocated a counter-referendum to match Saddam's planned October referendum. Unfortunately, his effort was not assisted by other countries and only thousands of Iraqis took part - far short of the millions he had hoped for. Zayer bravely continues working for the nonviolent defeat of the Iraqi dictatorship. He met with European human rights activists and parliamentarians, asking them to send election monitors to future Iraqi elections and to support nonviolent regime change in Iraq, in an approach called ‘The Third Choice.’

“In a phone interview from his home in the Netherlands, Zayer pleaded that, ‘To achieve the third choice, we need help. Not with armies or with money. We need help in the form of nonviolent training to protect ourselves from Saddam and his agents. We can do it, but we need help now.’

“Unfortunately, not many people are listening. Helvey has been unable to make much progress in training Iraqi exiles in ‘political defiance.’ The next step would be for them to sit down together and identify the key props to Saddam's dictatorship so they can be undermined.

“In October, relatives of the disappeared did protest in Baghdad. Meanwhile, back in Washington Server was trying to get momentum going for a coherent strategy of nonviolent regime change. At the US Institute for Peace, he convened a meeting of experts on Iraq and those skilled in confronting dictatorships, and he published their findings. They suggested numerous new American initiatives, such as tracking down secret bank accounts, targeting sanctions more clearly to hit the powerful, and curbing the smuggling that pays for Iraqi weapons.

“Though his nonviolent strategies are ignored by the Bush Administration, Helvey has emerged as one of the most persuasive critics of war against Iraq. He asks,

‘What is the sense of urgency now for a war that wasn't there a year ago? What is the reason to go to war and not give nonviolence a try? If we have a commitment to democracy in this region, it would be better if the people did it themselves, through nonviolent methods, rather than its being imposed on them by the US military. We may be opening a Pandora's box by invading Iraq. After the victory there would be many extremist groups who would exploit the situation and use violence to foster their ends.’

“But few journalists contact Helvey at his home in West Virginia. His efforts to mobilize support for the Iraqi nonviolent opposition do not appear in the news and are ignored by most of the mainstream peace movement. And we get war instead.”


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